Anyone who’s ever eaten sushi, read manga, or sipped sake may feel they know something about this slinky archipelago of some 6800 volcanic islands. And yet, from the moment of arrival in Japan, it’s almost as if you’ve touched down on another planet. Prepare to be pleasantly disorientated as you negotiate this fascinating land where ancient gods, customs and craftsmanship are mixed up with cutting edge modern technology, futuristic fashions and up-to-the-second style.
High-speed trains whisk you from one end of the country to another with awe-inspiring punctuality. In the suburbs of a sprawling metropolis, you can catch sight of a farmer tending his paddy field, then turn the corner and find yourself next to a neon-festooned (video) games parlour. One day you could be picking through fashions in a boutique designed by an award-winning architect, the next relaxing in an outdoor hot-spring pool, watching cherry blossom or snowflakes fall, depending on the season.
Few other countries have, in the space of a few generations, experienced so much or made such an impact. Industrialized at lightning speed in the late nineteenth century, Japan shed its feudal trappings to become the most powerful and outwardly aggressive country in Asia in a matter of decades. After defeat in World War II, it transformed itself from atom-bomb victim to economic giant, the envy of the world. Having weathered a decade-long recession from the mid-1990s, Japan is now relishing its “soft power” as the world’s pre-eminent purveyor of pop culture, with the visual mediums of anime and manga leading the way.
In the cities you’ll first be struck by the mass of people. These hyperactive metropolises are the place to catch the latest trend, the hippest fashions and must-have gadgets before they hit the rest of the world. It’s not all about modernity, however: Tokyo, Kyoto, Ōsaka and Kanazawa, for example, also provide the best opportunities to view traditional performance arts, such as kabuki and nō plays, as well as a wealth of Japanese visual arts in major museums. Outside the cities there’s a vast range of travel options, from the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Shiretoko National Park in Hokkaidō to the balmy subtropical islands of Okinawa, and you’ll seldom have to go far to catch sight of a lofty castle, ancient temple or shrine, or locals celebrating at a colourful street festival.
In common with all developed countries, Japan is not a cheap place to travel in or to, but there’s no reason why it should be wildly expensive either. Some of the most atmospheric and traditionally Japanese places to stay and eat are often those that are the best value. There’s been significant price-cutting in some areas in recent years, particularly airline tickets, which now rival the famed bargain rail passes as a means to get to far-flung corners of the country.
It’s not all perfect, however. The Japanese are experts at focusing on detail (the exquisite wrapping of gifts and the tantalizing presentation of food are just two examples) but often miss the broader picture. Rampant development and sometimes appalling pollution are difficult to square with a country also renowned for cleanliness and appreciation of nature. Part of the problem is that natural cataclysms, such as earthquakes and typhoons, regularly hit Japan, so few people expect things to last for long anyway. There’s no denying either the pernicious impact of mass tourism, with ranks of gift shops, ugly hotels and crowds often ruining potentially idyllic spots.
And yet, time and again, Japan redeems itself with unexpectedly beautiful landscapes, charmingly courteous people, and its tangible sense of history and cherished traditions. Few will be able to resist the chance to get to grips with its mysterious yet tantalising culture that blurs the traditional boundaries between East and West – Japan is unique, neither wholly one nor the other.Read More
A more eco-friendly Japan – again
A more eco-friendly Japan – again
In his fascinating book Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan (whttp://www.justenoughjapan.com), Azby Brown documents how, in the mid-nineteenth century, the country was “conservation-minded, waste-free, well-housed and well-fed, and economically robust”.
Today Japan’s government is rediscovering the virtues of such sustainable living. At the United Nations Summit on Climate Change in 2009, Japan announced its medium-term goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from the 1990 level by 2020. Then, in April 2010, Tokyo launched a mandatory scheme to cut carbon dioxide emissions from large office buildings and factories.
Citizens are also striving to live life in a healthier, more organic and sustainable way. There’s Mottanai (wmottainai.info/english/who.html), a project to promote a self-sustaining society through reducing waste, reusing finite resources and recycling, while the town of Ogawa, in Saitama prefecture north of Tokyo, has become a model of organic agriculture: food waste is recycled into liquid fertilizer and methane gas and organic food products such as sake, soy sauce and dried noodles have been developed.
The blog Tokyo Green Space (wtokyogreenspace.wordpress.com) highlights bright eco ideas practiced in the capital. Some of these, such as the Ginza Bee Project (wgin-pachi.jp), where 300,000 bees make honey from nectar collected in nearby parks, and the minuscule Ginza Farm (whttp://www.iknowledge.jp/ginza_farm), recall what life was like two centuries ago when Tokyo was called Edo.
For an insight into Japan’s forward-thinking sustainable technologies and ideas, there’s the annual Eco-Products fair (weco-pro.com/eco2009/english/index.html). It’s also worth visiting Greenz.jp (wgreenz.jp/en) to find out about Green Drinks, a monthly get-together of eco-aware people in Tokyo, or dropping by Ecozzeria (whttp://www.ecozzeria.jp), an environmental strategy centre in Tokyo’s Shin-Marunouchi Building.
Loving the machine
Loving the machine
The thirtieth anniversary in 2009 of Mobile Suit Gundam, a hit anime franchise, served as the opportunity to construct an 18m tall, 35-tonne replica of one of its key robot characters on Tokyo’s Odaiba. During the two months RX-78-2 Gundam was on display it drew 4.15 million visitors. Crowds are also flocking to see another giant anime robot statue – Tetsujin 28 – built to commemorate Kōbe’s recovery from its 1995 earthquake (see Kobe Tetsujin Project). And it’s difficult to turn a corner without seeing an image of Tezuka Osamu’s Astro Boy, perhaps the most famous anime robot of all; his latest role is the official ambassador for Japan’s bid for the 2022 World Cup.
Japan’s love of humanistic robots goes back several centuries to the Edo era when much smaller karakuri ningyo (mechanized automata and puppets) were crafted to serve tea, or to decorate the portable shrines used in festivals: you can still see such dolls in action today on the floats used in festivals in Takayama and Furukawa among other places. These are the roots of a culture that continues to see robots as entertainment, life assistants and even friends. One robot called I-Fairy has officiated at a wedding while another, the robot seal Paro is being used for therapy in hospitals and elderly care homes.
This is just the tip of the coming robotic iceberg. As Timothy Hornyak points out in his fascinating book Loving the Machine, “more and more intelligent machines are expected to start working in Japanese society in areas such as healthcare as its population ages rapidly and its workforce shrinks.”
Earthquake safety procedures
Earthquake safety procedures
If you do have the misfortune to experience more than a minor rumble, follow the safety procedures listed below:
- Extinguish any fires and turn off electrical appliances.
- Open any doors leading out of the room you’re in, as they often get jammed shut, blocking your exit.
- Stay away from windows because of splintering glass. If you have time, draw the curtains to contain the glass.
- Don’t rush outside (many people are injured by falling masonry), but get under something solid, such as a ground-floor doorway, or a desk.
- If you are outside when the quake hits, head for the nearest park or other open space.
- If the earthquake occurs at night, make sure you’ve got a torch (all hotels, ryokan, etc provide flashlights in the rooms).
- When the tremors have died down, go to the nearest open space, taking your documents and other valuables with you. It’s also a good idea to take a cushion or pillow to protect your head against falling glass.
- Eventually, make your way to the designated neighbourhood emergency centre and get in touch with your embassy.